Welcome to a brand new season of “Start/Bench!” The first thing you may have noticed is that there is a brand new writer of this article. I am honored and privileged to be taking over the column from the esteemed Jim Bukowski. Realizing that the bar has been set high, I am committed to continuing the excellence established by my predecessor.
A couple of point of reference details to get out of the way as to how the “Studs” have been determined for Week 1. Last season’s performance, preseason rankings, average draft position as well as career production were all factored in to equation. “Studs” are considered every week starters and can be inserted into lineups with confidence and no second-guessing.
It will, of course, be a fluid listing that is continuously changing on a weekly basis due to 2013 game performance. That being said, there will not be knee-jerk reactions. For example if Aaron Rodgers throws four interceptions in a given week he will remain a “Stud.” Should he throw four interceptions five weeks in a row then we may have to re-evaluate (for the record I don’t see that happening).
This season promises to be an especially exciting one from a “Start/Bench” perspective as there are 12 new offensive coordinators bringing their respective systems to NFL teams. OK, enough of my blathering on and on. Let’s get it on!
Robert Griffin III
Michael Vick, PHILADELPHIA at Washington: Ride the Vick train for as long as he stays healthy and is leading the Chip Kelly high-octane offense. It’s unrealistic to expect a repeat of Vick’s 2010 performance against the Redskins on Monday Night Football in which he put up more than 400 yards of total offense and six touchdowns in a 59-28 romp. What is realistic is the probability of the Eagles being in a shootout with Robert Griffin III and Vick posting very big fantasy totals.
Alex Smith, KANSAS CITY
at Jacksonville: Smith didn’t exactly light it up in the preseason while completing 31-of-48 passes for 288 yards and one touchdown (in the first three preseason contests). Look for that to change in the regular season opener. Look for new coach Andy Reid to build his quarterbacks confidence by allowing him to open things up against Jacksonville. The Jaguars struggle to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and will be starting two rookies in their secondary. That all adds up to nice totals for Smith in his regular season debut.
Matt Schaub, HOUSTON
at San Diego: Schaub will be counted on to exploit a shaky Chargers secondary while Arian Foster works himself into game shape. The San Diego defense can be exploited over the middle as its linebackers struggle in coverage and its secondary has been revamped with castoffs (Richard Marshall, Derek Cox) and unproven youngsters (Shareece Wright, Brandon Taylor). Andre Johnson will have a field day and Schaub will reap the benefits.
Ben Roethlisberger, PITTSBURGH
vs. TENNESSEE: I struggled with placing Roethlisberger on the “Stud” list but just have too many questions regarding the Steelers offense. How will the revamped wide receiver corps look? Is Antonio Brown ready to be a No. 1 wide receiver? How healthy is security blanket Heath Miller (not very)? That being said, Roethlisberger could take a big step towards regaining “Stud” status in this Week 1 matchup. The Titans allowed 31 touchdown passes a year ago and the shaky running back situation will have Roethlisberger airing it out.
Carson Palmer, ARIZONA
at St Louis: I like the addition of Palmer as the starting quarterback in Arizona from an overall perspective. For the long haul it helps Larry Fitzgerald and the entire passing game. It just doesn’t look good for Palmer this week against this team. The Rams finished second in sacks last season with 51 and the Cardinals allowed a league-high 58. The Cardinals lost offensive guard Jon Cooper in their third preseason game to injury and are currently reshuffling the offensive line. Avoid Palmer in Week 1 as the Rams bring the heat all day long and shut down the Arizona passing attack with cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan.
Philip Rivers, SAN DIEGO
vs. Houston: The Week 1 matchup with Houston is a particularly harsh one for Rivers. The Texans racked up 48 sacks last season and the Chargers offensive line has struggled to keep the rush off of Rivers (he was sacked three times on 12 drop backs against the Chicago Bears in week two of the preseason). J.J. Watt will introduce himself to Rivers early, often and all day long. Oh yeah, besides the aging Antonio Gates and fragile Malcom Floyd, Rivers will have a stable of unproven receiving options to throw to.
Andy Dalton, CINCINNATI
at Chicago: Dalton will be under pressure all day long from an opportunistic Bears defense that picked off 24 passes last season. Dalton has been without All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green for most of the preseason and it will take them some time to get on the same page. Facing the Bears defense in Week 1 on the road is too hard of a task for Dalton and sitting him out is the wise move.
Frank Gore, SAN FRANCISCO
vs. Green Bay: Most folks have the highlights of Colin Kaepernick tearing up the Packers defense last January embedded in their minds. Lost in those memories is the fact that Frank Gore had 119 yards on 23 carries and a touchdown. In fact, during the 49ers’ two wins over Green Bay (they also defeated them in Week 1), Gore had 280 total yards from scrimmage on 42 touches and two touchdowns. That is a player that fantasy owners want in their lineups on opening weekend.
David Wilson, NEW YORK GIANTS
at Dallas: Time to take that shiny new speedster running back out for a test drive! With Andre Brown set to miss significant time with a fractured leg, Wilson is now the undisputed three-down running back for New York. It was a year ago in Week 1 that Wilson fumbled his way into the doghouse against the Cowboys and he’s after some payback. Look for Wilson to have a very fantasy-friendly coming out party down in Dallas this weekend.
Stevan Ridley, NEW ENGLAND
at Buffalo: Coach Bill Belichick is too hard to trust in how he will distribute the ball amongst his running backs on a weekly basis to be able to confidently place Ridley on the “Stud” list. However, he firmly belongs in starting lineups for Week 1 in a tasty matchup against Buffalo. Ridley averaged 4.8 yards per carry in the two games with the Bills last season on his way to racking up 214 yards and three scores. Despite a new head coach (Doug Marrone) and new defensive coordinator (Mike Pettine), the Bills run defense has continued to look suspect in the preseason and Ridley is in for a big day.
DeMarco Murray, DALLAS
vs. New York Giants: Murray torched the Giants for 131 yards on 20 carries in the 2012 season opener and added 9 yards on two receptions. More important is that he came through the 2013 preseason unscathed and is in line for a lot of touches as the lead dog in Dallas. With Murray’s history of missing games, this is a prime opportunity to get a return on your investment before any injuries crop up.
Chris Ivory, NEW YORK JETS
vs. Tampa Bay: Ivory actually finished the preseason healthy after dealing with a hamstring issue early on and that is a good sign. What is not a good sign however is the sorry state of the quarterback situation for the Jets and the fact that the offensive line doesn’t appear as strong as in past seasons. Factor in that the Buccaneers were the staunchest defense against the run last season, allowing 82.5 yards per game and you get the picture. Week 1 will not be kind to Ivory or any aspect of the Jets offense for that matter.
Giovani Bernard, CINCINNATI
at Chicago: A lot of folks are going to want to look like the smartest player in their league by trotting out Bernard as a RB2 or flex option. Don’t do it this week. A rookie on the road against the Bears is a recipe for less-than-adequate production. Bernard will have his big weeks as he’s too talented not to, but Chicago will shut him down in Week 1. While it goes without saying, I’ll say it anyway. BenJarvus Green-Ellis belongs on the bench as well.
Eddie Lacy, GREEN BAY
at San Francisco: With the season ending injury to DuJuan Harris and Johnathan Franklin failing to impress during training camp, Lacy finds himself atop the Packers running back depth chart. That will mean a heavy workload and plenty of big lanes to run through at times with the spread offense Green Bay employs. Not this week though. The 49ers defense bottled up the Packers rushing attack in their two meetings last season to the tune of 71 yards on 20 carries (3.5 yards per attempt) and one touchdown. San Francisco’s defense looks to be as strong as ever and that means Lacy belongs on the bench.
DeAngelo Williams, CAROLINA
vs. Seattle: Jonathan Stewart was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list and that makes Williams the undisputed No. 1 ball carrier for Carolina. The Seattle Seahawks defense comes to town for Week 1 and that makes Williams unplayable. Sit him in all formats.
DeSean Jackson, PHILADELPHIA
at Washington: Jackson is sitting pretty heading into what looks to be a shootout in Week 1. The Redskins defense allowed an average of 281.9 yards per game through the air last season and 31 touchdowns. Michael Vick seems to have a grip on new coach Chip Kelly’s offense and he and Jackson have been in sync this preseason. Look for Jackson to burst out of the gate with at least 100 yards receiving and one touchdown.
T.Y. Hilton, INDIANAPOLIS
vs. Oakland: Oh my. Hilton is in line for a field day against a porous Raiders secondary (I’m being kind here). Don’t worry about Darrius Heyward-Bey starting over Hilton. It’s Hilton that has quarterback Andrew Luck ’s eye and will benefit from Oakland having to account for Hall of Famer Reggie Wayne. Defensive backs Tracy Porter, Mike Jenkins and rookie D.J. Hayden are in for a very long day in Week 1.
Danny Amendola, NEW ENGLAND
at Buffalo: It’s finally time for the Patriots to trot out ‘Wes Welker lite’ in a real game situation. Look for Tom Brady to target his new slot receiver early and often. Much like the aforementioned DeMarco Murray, Amendola’s injury history tells us he may not last 16 games. Get him in the lineup while he’s available and reap the benefits while they last. Buffalo lost its top cover corner Stephon Gilmore to injury and safety Jairus Byrd is likely to miss the game as well. Amendola is in for a huge day.
Greg Jennings, MINNESOTA
at Detroit: The Lions defensive front is stout and may give Adrian Peterson a tough test for a while (Peterson will break a long one) but their secondary is more of the same from 2012. Detroit allowed 26 touchdowns through the air last season, and, for his career against Detroit, Jennings has amassed 42 receptions for 729 yards and five touchdowns. As the Lions over-commit to stopping the run, it will leave cornerbacks Chris Houston, Rashean Mathis and rookie Darius Slay to their own devices. That spells fantasy goodness for Jennings.
Steve Smith, CAROLINA
vs. Seattle: Smith is the unquestioned No. 1 wide receiver for quarterback Cam Newton and even at age 33 can still get the job done. He doesn’t appear to have lost much speed and is as tough as nails with the ‘my ball’ mentality that the great ones possess. That being said, he will be blanketed this week by the duo of Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman (the trash talk between Sherman and Smith will be epic!) and will struggle to produce. Last season in this matchup Smith had only four catches for 40 yards on 13 targets in Week 5. Go ahead and give him the week off.
Stevie Johnson, BUFFALO
vs. NEW ENGLAND: With the precarious quarterback situation in Buffalo, this could be a long season for Johnson. It’s looking as if the Bills intend to utilize him mainly from the slot position. In Week 1 it won’t matter where Johnson lines up. Buffalo will have a rookie quarterback under center and face a Patriots defense that will look to confuse that rookie. Johnson works hard for every ball and will do all he can to contribute, but in this matchup it won’t add up to much.
Cecil Shorts, JACKSONVILLE
vs. Kansas City: The return of Maurice Jones-Drew to the offense will see the Jaguars look to pound the rock and ease the pressure on embattled quarterback Blaine Gabbert (or Chad Henne should Gabbert’s thumb injury keep him out). The Chiefs upgraded their secondary with the additions of cornerbacks Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson to join Brandon Flowers. With wide receiver Justin Blackmon serving his suspension, Shorts will be the only receiving threat and easily blanketed. I like Shorts heading forward this season but strongly suggest sitting him this week.
*** Not expected to play in Week 1 ***
Brandon Myers, NEW YORK GIANTS
at Dallas: Myers and Eli Manning don’t seem to be on the same page. At least not through the first three preseason games in which Myers had two catches for 25 yards on three targets. I get the feeling that will all change when the bullets start flying for real. Last season Manning found tight end Martellus Bennett four times for 40 yards and a touchdown in the season opener and I expect the same from Myers. Manning is masterful at finding his tight ends over the middle (Jake Ballard exploited the Cowboys for four catches, 52 yards and a touchdown in Week 14 of 2011). Look for Myers and Manning to get on the same page in this week’s matchup with Dallas.
Brent Celek, PHILADELPHIA
at Washington: The tight end position is heavily utilized in new head coach Chip Kelly’s offense. After initially lining up as the in-line blocking tight end early in the preseason, Celek has emerged as the top receiving tight end option. He’s not he fastest or slickest tight end in the league but he is sure-handed and willing to fight for the ball. The Washington defense was very generous to tight ends last season from a fantasy perspective (allowing 66.4 yards per game and 0.6 touchdowns), so look for Celek to find the end zone at least once this week.
Zach Sudfeld, NEW ENGLAND
at Buffalo: Despite being benched in the third preseason game after fumbling a 20-yard reception (he was later reinserted during fourth quarter garbage time), I’m still all-in on the kid from Nevada. Two tight end sets are a big part of the Patriots offense, and Sudfeld is their best receiving tight end option. As a point of reference is the fact that in the last four games against Buffalo, Rob Gronkowski has posted 23 receptions, 352 yards and six touchdowns. Oh yeah, I like Sudfeld’s chances in Week 1.
Jermaine Gresham, CINCINNATI
at Chicago: Sensing a pattern yet? Avoid playing as many Bengals as possible (A.J. Green not withstanding) this week as they head to the Windy City. The addition of first round draft pick Tyler Eifert to the offense further muddles the tight end position for the Bengals and a hands-off approach is in order for this week.
Coby Fleener, INDIANAPOLIS
vs. Oakland: The fact that Fleener is recovering from both a knee sprain and a concussion as Week 1 approaches has me playing it cautiously with him. Dwayne Allen is also expected back from his foot injury to suit up on opening weekend and the targets to the tight end position will be split. Let things play out for a week or two in Indianapolis before deciding which tight end to ride for fantasy purposes. One of these two is going to break out as a viable starter, but it’s too soon to tell whom that will be.
Wally Spurlin is a fantasy football staff writer for FantasySharks.com.